Published: Jan 18, 2013 10:26 AM
Modified: Jan 18, 2013 10:28 AM
RALEIGH - Amid slower enrollment growth and tension with Wake County commissioners, Wake school leaders will likely avoid asking for as much as a $1 billion school construction bond referendum this fall.
Wake school administrators had previously identified more than $1 billion in needs for new schools and renovations to existing schools in the state’s largest school district. But new school board Chairman Keith Sutton said Thursday that a $1 billion bond issue that could raise property taxes $160 a year on a $200,000 home isn’t likely to go before voters.
“It will be some compromise between our needs and what commissioners are willing to do to raise taxes,” Sutton said after the first joint meeting of the school board and commissioners on the next bond issue.
Sutton didn’t indicate a specific amount, but his predecessor as chairman, Kevin Hill, had talked last year with the leaders of the board of commissioners about presenting several bond issues of $300 million to $400 million instead of a single large package.
Five more joint meetings are scheduled, with the school system presenting the amount it wants in June. This would allow commissioners, who have the final say on putting a bond issue on the ballot, to meet the legal requirements for a fall public vote.
Wake County voters last approved a school bond issue in 2006, allowing a record $970 million to be borrowed to pay for school construction projects. The poor economy and slower-than-projected growth has allowed Wake to stretch out the length of the projects funded by the bond issue. Wake has 149,508 students now, 12,863 students fewer than projected in the 2006 bond issue.
New enrollment projections – jointly developed by staff from the school district, county and N.C. State University – show Wake picking up 43,000 more students by 2022.
As with the 2006 bond, a tax increase would be required for a new bond. County officials say every $120 million that’s borrowed would raise property taxes $20 a year on a $200,000 home.
The other variable that the school board has to work through is its strained relationship with commissioners majority.
Joint meetings on the bond issue were postponed after the school board’s Democratic majority in September fired Superintendent Tony Tata, who was well liked by the Republican majority on the board of commissioners.
Joe Bryan, the new commissioners chairman, acknowledged the tensions at the start of Thursday’s meeting.
“There are going to be issues that we rarely agree on,” he said. “There have been issues that we don’t agree on. Our success is our ability to constructively deal with both situations.”
One sign of the tension emerged at the end of the meeting when Commissioner Paul Coble warned the school board against changing a policy that would allow the district to increase its rainy-day fund. The system has no taxing authority and receives local funding annually after making a case to the county commissioners for its budget needs.
The school board is considering a policy revision that would let it keep more of its unspent money before returning the excess to commissioners. School administrators and board members say the district needs to keep the money to use for avoiding layoffs this year.
But Coble and some other Republican commissioners don’t think the school board should have its own emergency fund. The commissioners could respond to any policy change by cutting the level of funding it provides the schools or by using it as an issue in the bond talks.
“If we’re going to go forward with a feeling of trust and cooperation, I would suggest that y’all look very hard at that before you make a decision how you’re going to change something and how we will react to that,” Coble said.
Sutton said the school board will consider Coble’s concerns while doing what it feels is necessary.
“At some point there will be a clearing of the air,” Bryan said after the meeting. “People recognize that there have been problems between both boards.”